California Native Plant Society
San Gabriel Mountains Chapter

Spring 2007: Along Joatngna Trail at Lower San Antonio Station
— a brief natural history of fire

Winter 2006:  It is now two winters after the Padua Fire of 2003 and one winter after the great rains of 2004-2005. The endemic San Gabriel Mountains Leather Oak is making a comeback. New stems with prickly, golden-haired leaves surround the charred, bare branches.

California peony sprouts abundantly in the grassy areas. New red stalks unfurl even in the middle of the trail. Clumpy plants with large dissected green leaves, California peony has an odd flower, not particularly beautiful, but intriguing because of its unusual color, odd shape and large size. The cupcake-sized flowers droop downward without fully opening. Inside the chocolate-maroon colored petals are numerous yellow stamens surrounding two to five green thick-walled fruits.

deerweedThe Seasons of Deerweed:  In the early years after fire deerweed quickly becomes the most abundant species, so much so that the mountain slopes change color depending on its seasonal stages. The mountain sides are green when new leaves sprout in the late winter, turn yellow during the peak flowering season in spring, and then to reddish as the flowers age. After returning to green for a few weeks, the slopes turn rusty-red after the leaves wither exposing the stems. After the October rains, the hillsides, particularly the foothill ridges, are bright cardinal red when the stems soak up the water. Now, in winter, the deerweed is still visible on the slopes, but faded and light red.

Deerweed occurs on dry slopes and alluvial fans, especially after burns, below 5000 feet.  It is a pioneer species helping  to reestablish the plant community. As a member of the pea family, deerweed is able to fix nitrogen. When the plant community matures, deerweed gradually disappears.

Deer don't care much for deerweed, but bees do. Deerweed’s yellow blossoms turn red once they've been pollinated, telling visiting insects  to move on to fresh blooms.

The St. Patrick's Day Butterfly, as it is locally known because it is green and appears around March 17, also likes deerweed. Properly called the bramble hairstreak butterfly, it is the only green butterfly around. The males perch on the tips of the plants waiting for females to pass by. Then they chase them. They chase almost anything. Try it.

A Short Fire History:  Lower San Antonio Station was saved from burning during the Padua Fire only by the valiant effort of fire crews. Debris piles consisting of dead branches of non-native plant material, particularly eucalyptus, await burning.  Pile-burning is a cost-effective way of debris disposal that is regulated by the Air Quality District. Burning of these piles reduces the threat of wildfire to mountain communities by getting rid of scattered, standing dead material. Meanwhile until the right atmospheric conditions occur, the piles are homes for birds, lizards, snakes and ground squirrels.

Other places in other fires did not escape burning.  Barely a trace is left of Stoddard's Resort after a series of forest fires. Stoddard's was in a side canyon north of Upland off Mountain Avenue southeast of the station.

It opened in 1886 as a place where valley residents would go to enjoy the tree-shaded picnic area, cabins and dance pavilion. Trails deep in the canyon went past a series of waterfalls.  Stoddard's was known as the "Niagara Falls of California" because it was a favorite for honeymooners.

The Depression made things hard for Stoddard's, but it was a 1953 Santa Ana wind-fed fire that removed it from the map. (Source for the Stoddard material is Daily Bulletin 05/26/2005)

Long before settlers arrived, the Tongva lived in villages near the foothills where water came to the surface.  They would venture further into the mountains for the seasonal gathering of acorns, berries, cherries and seeds for food and construction materials for baskets.

Fire was widely used by Native Americans  for clearing brush, maintaining meadows and grasslands, improving browse for animals, enhancing production of plant foods and materials used for basketry and cordage, and reducing fuel accumulations that might otherwise sustain intense fires.

skunkbushSkunkbush Sumac (Rhus trilobata):  Native Americans burned skunkbush sumac to stimulate production of long, straight sprouts which could be used for making baskets. The number of young shoots occurring naturally on wild shrubs are very few, justifying the need for frequent management.

Burning produces stems with few branches, long internodes, and uniform diameter. For example, unmanaged skunkbush sumac produces 10 short shoots and 3 long shoots per patch while managed skunkbush sumac produces 100 short shoots and 100 long shoots per patch. One burden basket takes 1200 first-year sumac shoots to complete.  Pliable young stems are also woven with grass stems into durable baskets that hold water.

At the same time, burning improves skunkbush sumac browse for bighorn sheep, mule deer, jackrabbits and cottontail. Skunkbush sumac fruit is an important winter food source for birds such as quail and is used by Native Americans in foods, beverages, and medicines.

What makes all those small holes we are seeing? Ground squirrels do. They live in burrows where they sleep, rest, rear young, store food, and avoid danger. The openings are about 4 inches in diameter. The burrows are 5 to 30 feet or more in length and go 2 to 4 feet below the surface. Ground squirrels live in colonies of several dozen animals. Hillsides or low earth  banks are preferred sites because the burrows can be excavated horizontally, although many burrows are dug down vertically several feet to assure protection.

squirrelGround squirrels forage above ground close to their burrows. Their home range is within a 75-yard radius of their burrow. Diet changes with the season. After emerging from hibernation, they feed almost exclusively on green grasses and herbaceous plants. When annual plants begin to dry and produce seed, squirrels switch to seeds, grains, and nuts, and begin to store

Populations tend to increase after fires. Frequent burning maintains the open grasslands where they make burrows and encourages the growth of native plants which provide seeds for squirrels to fatten sufficiently before the long hibernation. The non-native plants put all their energy into rapid vegetative growth rather than making nutritious seeds.

Ground squirrels are active during the day from mid-morning through late afternoon, especially on warm, sunny days. During winter months most ground squirrels hibernate, but some are active, especially in areas where winters are not severe. During the hottest times of the year most adults go into a period of inactivity, called estivation, that may last a few days to a week or more.

ABOUT THIS TRAIL

“Joatngna” means Village at Snowy Mountain in the Gabrielino/Tongva language. The attractions of this trail in spring are many: blooming California peonies, ferns, fire recovery especially of the endemic San Gabriel Mountains leather oak, and Indian uses of native plants. NOTE: You will need a National Forest Adventure Pass.

Getting there: From the 210 Freeway in the Claremont area, exit north on Baseline Road. Immediately turn right on Padua Road. Continue north to Mt. Baldy Road and turn right. Continue until the first road on the right after the dam. Turn right on Shinn Road and drive to the bottom of the hill. Park across from the fire station.

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Acknowledgment:

This page © 2007-2008 Jane Strong